Women: 'the male gaze'

A Goya show at the National Gallery of Art follows up on a Renaissance exhibition that looked at the female portrait

Sept. 11 affected visual art in two ways: It can now seem like a frill, or it can feel like a needed respite, where we revel in or reconcile the virtuous and the horrific.

A respite of an exhibition went less noticed last fall because of 9/11. Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women at the National Gallery in Washington put us in touch in the subtlest of ways with beauty and virtue, gender and power.

The exhibition opened Sept. 30; few visitors were going to the nation's capital during the three-month run. That is a shame, since the show, featuring Leonardo Da Vinci, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Sandro Botticelli, was one of the National Gallery's finest exhibitions.

The names may sound like pasta dishes, but Botticelli's image "Birth of Venus," with its exquisite line and surreal space, appears on mugs and T-shirts, and is ingrained in popular awareness. That work was not in the Washington show, but a lovely Botticelli portrait of the young woman who inspired that Venus was – "Young Woman (Simonette Vespucci?) in Mythological Guise." The painting of the beautiful Vespucci, heartthrob of Florence's privileged sons, was a delicate delight.

The exhibition captured 15th-century Florence, when patronage and taste shifted from the church to ridiculously wealthy banking, textile, and shipping families, the most famous of which we all know: the Medicis.

The show gave a glimpse of Medici women, and of the Renaissance when – through their patrons, with their secular tastes and their interest in the real world and in creative experimentation – painters and sculptors achieved a level of skill so dazzling that they cast off medieval roles as craftsmen and commanded the status of genius artists.

The show recorded, among other complex changes in art and ideas, the advent of the female portrait in profile: still, stylized, impersonal archetypes of feminine refinement and élan, seen through the eyes of the male patriarchs who commissioned them and the male artists who executed them. These idealized profiles gradually softened into three-quarter poses, then to full-frontal portraits, immortalized in Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and in his "Ginevra de' Benci" (still on display in Washington).

As a perfect coda to "Renaissance Portraits of Women," the National Gallery has mounted Goya: Images of Women, through June 2.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes worked in the early 1800s, and as his Romantic age of angst and free expression permitted, his women display a freedom only hinted at in the Renaissance.

Employed by the Spanish crown, Goya made a name for himself as a tapestry designer and painter, and became court painter to the king. Then he became deaf, and from this odd combination of despair and financial freedom, he began to render women increasingly from his imagination, with no patron demanding an idealized icon.

Goya images track the psychological, philosophical, and sociological line from the constrained Renaissance to the Romantic era via works like "Naked Maja." This young woman is naked, not classically nude, and she's comfortable with that distinction as she relaxes, unabashed.

Goya's "Thérèse-Louise de Sureda" is, like the Renaissance images, a made-to-order likeness and symbol of well-heeled virtue. But this woman has had 400 years since the Renaissance to turn her head and look right at us, inspecting the viewer as much we scrutinize her. A print from Goya's "Los Caprichos" shows a nubile teen, demure but calculating, as she chooses from rich, old suitors.

Both shows remind us that, since antiquity, art has been intensely interested in the female form. It was the proving ground on which stylistic and epochal changes were played out.

Laced onto this form through the ages are uneasy, contradictory ideas that we have inherited about what women are: sexual, virginal, decorated, modest, powerful, plotting, and powerless.

Whether from the 1400s or 1800s, we know women through the limited prism of what art history calls "the male gaze." Perhaps future shows will carry the theme into our century, letting women speak for themselves, and art reflects what it means to be a lady in the post-modern age.

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